The Best Films of 2011

1. DRIVE
We go to movies for the seductive thrill of entering a world that, no matter how relatable, exists apart from reality–after all, even the most cinema verite documentaries are ultimately just versions of the truth. DRIVE not only creates a world that could only exist in a movie but proudly, blatantly references other films to a degree that would shame even Quentin Tarantino. And yet, even as one plays spot-the-allusion, the film never seems derivative or empty because it’s so gleefully, compellingly drunk on its own allure. With Ryan Gosling (perfect as a cipher who reveals a little too much when his mask slips) in the driver’s seat and director Nicolas Winding Refn meticulously mapping his way,  they craft a Los Angeles tableau full of gripping chase sequences, brutal (but rarely gratuitous) violence and magnetic, minimalist cool.

2. WEEKEND
Proving that contemporary gay cinema doesn’t have to solely consist of frothy rom-coms barely good enough to air on Logo, Andrew Haigh’s intelligent, poignant film is a small wonder. Eschewing a high-concept plot, it’s simply about two guys who hook up at a bar and spend 48 hours fucking, chatting, ingesting copious substances and walking all over town, trying to make sense of their newfound connection and what comes next. With an incisive screenplay and strong performances from both Tom Cullen and Chris New, WEEKEND thoughtfully explores how messy, startling and beautiful it is when two people seek and find a certain intimacy with each other.

3. ANOTHER YEAR
As dependable as Loach or Ozu, Mike Leigh’s latest portrait of working-class Brits dealing with personal and familial issues centers on a happily-married couple (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, both solid as always) surrounded by miserable sods—in particular, Mary (the astounding Lesley Manville), a walking encyclopedia of patented Leigh ticks and embarrassing behavior. Fortunately, this time Leigh steps out of his (dis)comfort zone with more compassion for (if no less criticism of) his characters. Even Mary shows signs of redemption by the film’s end, but the risky place in which Leigh ends the film suggests he’s refined rather than softened his edge.

4. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES
In this playfully lyrical rumination on death, the titular character recounts past “vessels for his soul” to his family as additional long deceased or disappeared relatives return (one in the guise of a “monkey ghost”) to guide him towards his next rite of passage. With his usual wry, mystical bent, director Apichatpong Weerasethakul blends fantasy and reality together so fluidly that both become interchangeable and otherworldly—particularly in the final scene where he throws in a monkey wrench of sorts that perplexes but also disarmingly engages in its offhanded whimsy and suddenness.

5. THE ARBOR
A sensation at age 18 and dead at 29, British playwright Andrea Dunbar wrote what she knew: in her work, set in the tough council estate she lived in (which gave both her first play and this film its title), she explicitly drew from her surroundings and own experiences to the point where her art and life became indistinguishable. Clio Bernard’s documentary takes this initiative a step further as she interviews Dunbar’s neighbors, children and other relatives, but does not show them onscreen, instead casting actors to lip-synch their words. The result is philosophically profound, exploring layer upon layer of Dunbar’s life, impact and legacy, and also surprisingly cathartic.

6. THE ARTIST
A tribute to silent cinema in the way director Michel Hazanavicius’ OSS 117 films (also featuring gifted comic actor Jean Dujardin) were to 1960s spy flicks, but with one crucial difference: whereas those films slyly lampooned while remaining true to their predecessors’ spirit, THE ARTIST is more affectionate and even a little earnest towards its subject. Referencing everything from A STAR IS BORN to CITIZEN KANE and beyond, the film is less notable (but no less impressive) for its wow factor (a black-and-white silent film made in the 21th century!) than it is as a lovingly assembled, first-rate, old-fashioned melodrama.

7. POETRY
Between this and SECRET SUNSHINE (which recently, finally came out on domestic DVD), Korean director Lee Chang-Dong emerged as one of my favorite filmmakers this year. Quieter (and less genre-focused) than fellow Korean Bong Joon-Ho, his tone and scope are more in line with other Asian auteurs like Hirokazu Kore-ada or Hou Hsiao-Hsien. As a woman edging towards the early stages of Alzheimer’s, Yun Joeng-Hie gives a complex, subtle performance as her life vacillates between a moral quandary brought on by her grandson and both the frustration and enlightenment she finds within an introductory poetry class.

8. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY
Everyone associated with this John le Carré adaptation is at the top of their game here: Gary Oldman, who puts his own masterfully inward spin on what was an iconic role for Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC miniseries; the solid supporting cast (all good, from a delightfully caddish Colin Firth to a delicately shattered Mark Strong); Maria Djurkovic, whose production design painstakingly recreates a dreary era that’s fascinating in its ugliness; and most of all, director Tomas Alfredson, who proves that LET THE RIGHT ONE IN wasn’t a fluke and that is he game for anything.

9. MEEK’S CUTOFF
Increasingly, when formulating annual best-of lists, I find myself returning to films that genuinely challenged me a little. This is Kelly Reichardt’s third great film in a row, and I wrestled with it more than anything else this year (except for maybe DRIVE). Her “western” movie is as revisionist as MCCABE & MS. MILLER (while miles apart from it) in what it asks of its audience: not only to rethink what a western is but also what a non-traditional narrative can do. It’s a film where every step taken carries more weight than the final destination, or even the idea that one exists.

10. BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK
Richard Press’ unassuming yet perceptive profile of veteran New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham gracefully stood out in a year full of too many overstuffed, underdeveloped documentaries. As we see this octogenarian nimbly ride around Manhattan on his modest bicycle, taking candid shots of pedestrians who interest him or covering celebrity-heavy events with a fly-on-the-wall unobtrusiveness, we learn he’s both a fantastic artist (name another person you’ve seen this devoted to a profession) and a heck of a nice guy. He’s also a little eccentric, which Press handles beautifully—particularly, the astonishing scene where he gets Cunningham to divulge his feelings on sex and religion.

11. TABLOID
Joyce McKinney’s an immensely likable nutjob, so who better than Errol Morris to tell her tale? This sharp, entertaining “Looney Tunes Rashomon” (as dubbed by its producer) includes manacled Mormons, dueling British gossip mags, cloned canines and much, much more.

12. THE DESCENDANTS
I think I still prefer Alexander Payne as the razor-sharp satirist who made ELECTION to the tasteful dramatist/ethnographer he is here, but I can’t deny he’s made a rich, refreshingly understated work–good as he is, if George Clooney wasn’t involved, elitist critics and indie snobs would probably like it as much as A SEPARATION*.

13. THE SKIN I LIVE IN
An exceptionally twisted narrative and, perhaps, Antonio Banderas’ return brings out the best in Almodovar, who hasn’t made a film this creepy and oddly comforting in some time. If that’s not enough for lapsed Pedro acolytes, well, a man dressed in a tiger suit from head to toe also figures into the narrative.

14. HUGO
It’s possibly Scorsese’s best since GOODFELLAS, and it really shouldn’t have worked–Marty employing 3D, adapting a graphic novel for kids, pushing his film preservation agenda–so how come he seems so much more at ease here than with a potboiler like SHUTTER ISLAND or a stuffy biopic such as THE AVIATOR?

15. THE ILLUSIONIST
Sylvain Chomet follows up his delectable TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE at last, adapting a Jacques Tati story set mostly in Scotland and showing he can temper all of his amusing, absurd grotesques with real feeling and melancholy: the film is a requiem thankfully not weighed down by nostalgia.

16. JANE EYRE
I have a friend obsessed with the novel who claims this is one of its best adaptations yet, and it’s certainly the earthiest, most idiosyncratic adaptation of a classic novel I’ve seen since Terence Davies’ THE HOUSE OF MIRTH–perhaps also the most cinematic.

17. LITTLEROCK
Mike Ott’s impressive, underseen microindie examines how people in a small, isolated town outside L.A. talk incessantly but rarely comprehend each other (whether they speak the same language or not); it also explores with considerable depth what it means to be a foreigner in modern America.

18. BEGINNERS
With its smart, non-chronological sequencing and out-of-time soundtrack, you’d be forgiven for thinking Mike Mills’ deeply personal second film was just a tad reminiscent of ANNIE HALL, but no other contemporary effort has come so close to Woody Allen’s bittersweet, warts-and-all essay on the little things that make a life whole.

19. TAKE SHELTER
Ideally, Michael Shannon would be up there with Clooney for the Oscar–he’s tremendous as a troubled soul grappling with apocalyptic visions; director Jeff Nichols also places him in a carefully constructed environment so ordinary one could easily overlook how vividly real and lived-in it is.

20. SUBMARINE
Dismissed by too many as a Wes Anderson knockoff, Richard Ayoade’s debut film weds a distinct, somewhat warped sensibility to that hoariest of narrative perennials, the coming-of-age tale. I found a lot to love in it: finely drawn characters, a keen sense of place, Alex Turner’s shimmering score, Paddy Considine decked out in a mullet wig.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

ANOTHER EARTH
BARNEY’S VERSION
BRIDESMAIDS
CERTIFIED COPY
A DANGEROUS METHOD
THE FUTURE
GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE
LE HAVRE
HEARTBEATS
HIGHER GROUND
KABOOM
MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE
MELANCHOLIA
PARIAH
POTICHE
PROJECT NIM
LE QUATTRO VOLTE
TERRI
3
THE TREE OF LIFE
TRIGGER

(*I haven’t seen A SEPARATION yet: it opens in Boston Jan. 27.)

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

Many book-to-film adaptations fail because they aren’t faithful enough, but just as often they’re too literal to succeed as cinema. In struggling to capture a book’s essence, they adhere closely to what the prose dictates but subsequently feel imprisoned to the page, not fully taking advantage of how visual and aural cues can act as enhancements. Although I haven’t read the John le Carré novel (or seen the 1979 BBC miniseries with Alec Guinness), I can assuredly say that TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY is a successful adaptation primarily because it’s so deliriously cinematic. Credit director Tomas Alfredson, whose previous film, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, also conveyed a talent for transforming the written word into visual poetry.

The first thing you notice in TINKER is not necessarily the dialogue (which is sparse and secondary throughout the opening set-piece) but the overall look. Set in the early ’70s, the bleak visual palette, full of drab grays and browns, institutional metal and concrete surfaces and very little bright light, vividly recreates an apathetic era of British Cold War culture—post-Swinging London, pre-Punk/New Wave. Simultaneously, the symphonic sound design makes it clear that you’re not simply watching a novel on-screen. Chilled silences alternate with the deafening roar of an underground train, voices instantly shift from an incomprehensible mumble to an impassioned shout and Alberto Iglesias’ somber, at times jazzy score adds texture but rarely manipulates.

Still, an adaptation does not succeed by style alone. Arguably, the real challenge Alfredson and screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughn faced was in rendering Le Carré’s labyrinthine narrative comprehensible as a feature-length film. With its substantial corral of characters, numerous flashbacks and typically twisty espionage-centered plot (concerning the search for a mole giving secrets away to the Soviets within “The Circus”, a fictional British Intelligence agency), it’s not easy to follow; admittedly, I clicked on the film’s Wikipedia page afterwards to sort a few things out. When viewing TINKER a second time, I easily parsed just how carefully constructed it was (for instance, you meet nearly all the characters during the opening credits, even though you don’t see a few of them again until much later), but its dense plotting and leisurely pace could act as a major deterrent for some viewers on their first go-around.

Fortunately, the key to deciphering TINKER is its central figure, George Smiley. Given his obvious acuity for completely disappearing into a role (such as Sid Vicious, Count Dracula and Sirius Black), Gary Oldman just kills it as the retired agent called back into service to find the mole. Reserved, weathered and resolutely owlish in his ginormously framed eyeglasses, he’s a reactor but also just as much an observer—traits easily taken for granted by others, but essential for espionage. By listening astutely and choosing his words (and actions) wisely, he puts all the pieces together. Likewise, if you pay close attention to everything Smiley says and does, TINKER gains considerable focus and clarity.

Additionally, a remarkable ensemble aids Oldman, from Colin Firth at his caddish best and a chameleonic-as-ever Tom Hardy to a perfectly craggy and authoritative John Hurt, plus good work from actors less familiar to American audiences such as Kathy Burke (featured in just one scene but unforgettable), Benedict Cumberbatch (boyish and loyal yet secretly tormented), and Mark Strong (testy yet utterly wounded by betrayal). In fact, everyone involved in this project seems devoted in bringing their best to it—a degree of passion and attention you wish all like-minded, considerably budgeted “prestige” pictures would take note of.

THE DESCENDANTS

If anything distinguishes Alexander Payne from other filmmakers of his generation, it’s in how thoroughly he develops his characters. Even when working with a densely packed narrative like his abortion satire CITIZEN RUTH, the characters stick with you longer than the (admittedly great) story does; it’s partially why he’s extracted career-best performances from Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon and Virginia Madsen and it’s arguably what made a whisper-thin narrative like SIDEWAYS work.

Payne’s first feature since SIDEWAYS centers on another intriguing character in Matt King (George Clooney), a Hawaiian land baron. His extended family owns the last large parcel of undeveloped acreage on one of the state’s islands. The family wants to sell this land, and since Matt’s the trustee, he ultimately makes the final decision as to whom the buyer is. Initially, he’s not terribly concerned about the land’s fate, and the issue does seem a little flippant in light of the fact that his wife, Elizabeth lies a coma following a severe waterskiing accident.

The thing about Matt is he’s decidedly modest for a land baron, preferring to make his living as a lawyer rather than living off his ancestral wealth. Whether dealing with his two daughters or reeling from an unpleasant secret about his wife, he is also amiably flawed in that he doesn’t always have the right answers but he rarely comes off as a buffoon. Credit Payne’s incisive but nuanced screenplay (cowritten with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) but don’t underrate Clooney–although the man still emanates a fair amount of his patented movie-star charm, he’s rarely seemed this relatable or vulnerable (his fairly good work in UP IN THE AIR almost seems like a trial run in comparsion).

Actually, THE DESCENDANTS greatly benefits from a sustained, understated tone that is rare for most films dealing with death, infidelity and a vanishing way of life. Gently buoyed by a pleasantly drowsy Hawaiian guitar-soaked score, Payne’s even-keeled approach is perfectly in tune with the culture it documents. While it’s hard not marvelling at Hawaii’s natural beauty, one gets an astute sense of what it’s really like to live there.  A major accomplishment for Payne, THE DESCENDANTS is miles away from the wicked satire of his earlier films, but it feels just as personal.

THE SKIN I LIVE IN

His last film, BROKEN EMBRACES, was almost Pedro Almodovar on auto-pilot: a predictably lush, easily digestible melodrama that, while amiable enough, felt a little stale compared to the director’s past work (self-referential nods to those very same films didn’t help). Thus, the mere prospect of a reunion with former muse Antonio Banderas (who worked with Almodovar at his most creatively fertile period) at once carries substantial promise and a little apprehension–would it be a return to form or a calculated attempt to recapture past glory?

Perhaps expectedly, THE SKIN I LIVE IN falls somewhere in between those two extremes. It’s not as wild or brazen as, say, MATADOR, but it doesn’t feel like a complete retread either. In an incredibly ornate, castle-like estate (as much a main character of the film as any single person), renowned plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Banderas) and his mother, Marilia (Marisa Paredes) hold young Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya) hostage. Ostensibly a burn victim, Vera is a guinea pig Robert uses to painstakingly construct a new synthetic, sustainable skin that sheathes her entire body.

As usual with late-period Almodovar, what we initially see is a ruse and what’s actually happening is not clarified until much later in the film. Happily, what slowly reveals itself as an exceptionally twisted narrative brings out the best in the director, who hasn’t made a film so creepy and oddly comforting in years. Additionally, his careful unraveling of such an outrageous story also both shocks and compels at all the right beats. Banderas is superbly cast in a role that utilizes his strengths as a smarmy lothario, commanding villain and demented genius.

Although great, pulpy fun, I can’t see THE SKIN I LIVE IN acquiring as lofty a place in the director’s canon as WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN or even VOLVER–in those films, characters often transcended their fanciful, outrageous situations. Here, they service the narrative and little else. Thankfully, it’s a good narrative and the way in which Almodovar obviously relishes it indicates he hasn’t deferred to permanent creative auto-pilot yet.

DRIVE

BRONSON, the only other film I’ve seen from director Nicolas Winding Refn, dazzled me by depicting its subject in purely cinematic terms, favoring magical realism and stylistic collage over a more traditional, been-there-done-that approach. My only problem with it was that Bronson himself remained far too opaque, a masked figure for our amusement rather than a real-life person (which he in fact was).

Initially, I had the same problem with Refn’s latest film, DRIVE. Ryan Gosling stars as an enigmatic loner who works as a mechanic and a Hollywood vehicular stunt man by day and a getaway driver for criminals after dark. He’s opaque to the point where he’s only referred to by name as “Driver”–we know virtually nothing else about his life, apart from his interactions with Irene (Carey Mulligan), a neighbor with a young son and an incarcerated husband. Even then, Gosling seems coolly blank, revealing next to nothing about himself as becomes a presence in their lives.

Fortunately, it’s none other than Gosling that saves the film from devolving into an empty, flashy exercise. By the midway point, it resonates that Gosling is meant to be a blank slate: whether a male companion and protector for Irene or a submissive getaway driver for crime boss Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks, unlikely but effortlessly playing a heavy, and with dignity too!), he becomes who others want him to be. Although he speaks little, you can see perceptible shifts in persona via his facial expressions and body language.

However, following an alarming, tragic chain of events, his mask partially, temporarily slips. When you catch more than a glimpse of what’s underneath, it’s not pretty. For the film’s increasingly, brutally violent remainder, you’re left to compromise this ugliness with the subsequent masks (one of them quite literal) Gosling puts on. More so than the film’s beguiling, icy, retro-electronic score or ravishing visual palette, this interference between a constructed persona and one’s own essence gives DRIVE its lift. With Refn providing Gosling the perfect environment for his perfect cipher of a character, and with Gosling masterfully imbuing that character with just enough nuance to keep us guessing, the two men prove a director-actor match made in heaven.

Score (out of 10): 9

CIRCUMSTANCE

What fan of independent world cinema wouldn’t want to see an Iranian film about a teenage lesbian relationship? CIRCUMSTANCE gets a lot of mileage from its novel premise alone. That director Maryam Keshavarz herself conveys a decidedly more youthful viewpoint of Iran than what most western audiences are familiar with (via the likes of Kiarostami, Panahi, etc;) renders that premise damn near irresistible—particularly to those of us who want to see what Iranian youth are really like. When Keshavarz offers a peek into an edgy dance club or four young adults covertly dubbing an American film into Persian, it carries an electrical charge, vindication that a culture is not always how we imagine it and simultaneously similar to our own.

Sadly, Keshavarz hasn’t made a film where these and some other often lovely moments cohere. In constructing a romance between two girls, one from an affluent, comparatively liberal family, the other from a more modest, conservative background, she gets the big picture across with ease. Forbidden love, regardless of the participants’ sex or social background is a concept easily grasped. Where she runs into trouble is with all the details and nuances that, when applied right, lend a concept depth and grace. Here, the screenplay is woefully underdeveloped and sloppy to the point where some of the characters’ motivations seem fuzzy or simply glossed over. She ends up squandering such an intriguing premise with what resembles a first or second draft in need of some fine tuning.

Score (out of 10): 5

THE TREE

In rural Queensland, Australia, Peter, a father of four suffers a fatal heart attack while driving and hits the enormous tree next to his house. Soon, his wife Dawn (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and 8-year-old daughter Simone (Morgana Davies) sense his spirit emanating from the tree. Rather than anthropomorphize the tree, director Julie Bertuccelli wisely uses a more mystical approach–the tree becomes a safe haven for Dawn and Simone to bask in and engage with its newfound Peter-ness. They talk to it as if they were communicating with him, but to the viewer it’s less a fantasy come to life than a chance for the family to continue their grieving process in a way that’s therapeutic and touching, but not maudlin. Conflict arises, however, when the tree begins to overtake the house–root growth underneath blocks the plumbing, vines begin to obscure the exterior and branches start not-so-randomly falling into certain people’s bedrooms.

Although it neatly executes a potentially dippy premise, the film does not hold together as well in its screenplay (adapted from a novel). A few early scenes following Peter’s death reek of tired melodrama and awkward dialogue and an attempt to make a nosy neighbor into a villain adds little weight to the main story. Fortunately, THE TREE exhibits a strong sense of space, not only in its expansive, massive titular object but also in the family’s lived-in, distinct home and its richly drawn and photographed surrounding landscapes. Morgana Davies is also pretty terrific as Simone–she has that same balance of ingenuity and precociousness as Anna Paquin did way back in THE PIANO. And with an always game Gainsbourg anchoring the cast, you’ve got a charming, (if uneven) slice of down-under magic realism that thankfully does not overdo the magic part.

Score (out of 10): 7